The DLC Flunks Politics 101

Democrats have a penchant for circular firing squads, particularly in the wake of electoral defeat. Once more, a first salvo has come from the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which has made its name sniping at other Democrats. In a confidential memorandum on the "Road Ahead," the DLC's Al From and Bruce Reed surveyed the 2002 election and decided -- why does this not surprise? -- that the party's problems are being "too liberal" and focusing too much on its base at the expense of the "forgotten middle class." Its salvation can only come by lurching to the right, particularly by being tougher than Bush on terrorism and Iraq.

The memo is a virtual recipe for defeat, a clear example of the thinking Democrats must shun if they are to revive. There should be no confusion about why Democrats lost ground in an agonizingly close 2002 election. Led by the president, who raised record sums and personally drove the late surge, Republicans ran a ruthlessly efficient campaign. The White House rolled out the Iraq debate to define an election about national security. Republicans shamelessly dressed themselves up as reformers on the domestic issues -- prescription drugs, corporate accountability, Social Security -- that they feared would be most damaging. They mobilized millions via independent ads, used to blur party differences and paid for by corporate allies. And they poured resources into getting out their vote, using an institutional capacity that far outstrips anything on the Democratic side.

Contrary to the DLC, Democrats did not counter this onslaught with a campaign focused on their base. Leaders hardly had a national message at all. They recruited anti-choice, pro-gun candidates for swing, conservative districts. They chose to stand with Bush on terrorism and Iraq because they didn't want to argue about national security. They failed to offer their own economic plan, instead carping about risks of recession. Senators in contested races even embraced the Bush tax cuts. The Senate majority was too divided to embrace real corporate accountability or pension reform, or even to pass a prescription-drug plan. Defense of Social Security was the oasis in an otherwise barren desert.

From and Reed sensibly indict the party for having had "too little to say and [having] been too timid to say it," and for failing to offer a "coherent plan for economic growth." But they ignore the DLC's own contribution to this failure. Last year, Reed was advising legislators that no big program was needed because Democrats could win just by attacking Republican excesses.

They now criticize the party for blowing the corporate scandals, but this summer From and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) were warning Democrats not to be "too anti-corporate," justifying Lieberman's timidity as chair of the committee investigating Enron.

From and Reed now criticize Democrats for walking into a trap on homeland security, a "phony debate over the makeup of a department that ... isn't enough to ... solve the problem anyway." But they fail to mention that their champion, Lieberman, pushed the idea as a way of looking tough on security.

From and Reed now rebuke Bush's "tax cuts for the rich," but earlier warned against liberal "class warfare." The DLC did join with liberals in opposing the Bush tax cuts. But when conservative Democratic senators embraced the cuts, the DLC's fixation on budget balancing helped leave Democrats tongue-tied.

The DLC postmortem reads as if the authors were frozen in some kind of Groundhog Day circa 1985. Democrats focus too much on their base and have neglected "the forgotten middle class." The supposed progress made under Bill Clinton on values (!) and national security (!) has now been erased. Dems are turning out their faithful but losing the suburbs. "There are more conservatives than liberals ... and more independents than either Republicans or Democrats," so Democrats have to stop catering to their base and focus on swing voters, presumably the white "office-park dads," the most Republican portion of the electorate, that the DLC has touted in past memos.

This is both wrong about the election and stupid about politics. With honorable exceptions, Democrats featured what Donna Brazile called "drive-by" campaigns, driving by their base in the rush to appeal to swing voters in the suburbs. Campaigns bereft of any message on jobs did not rouse union and minority voters. Comprehensive polling on election day -- by Greenberg Quinlan for the Institute for America's Future and the Democracy Corps -- reports that Democrats did as well or better with moderates and independents in 2002 as they did in 1998 or 2000. But Republicans mobilized their base voters and Democrats did not.

The DLC's entire premise, that we have to choose between energizing the base and appealing to swing voters, is simply goofy. An enduring majority for reform requires both. Democrats must rally to the causes, organizations, leaders and voters of the party base -- union workers, minorities, pro-choice women, environmentalists -- that are under relentless administration attack. But this need does not conflict with putting forth a bold and broad appeal that addresses both real security concerns and a working economy. Rather than doing both, Democrats did neither well.

Republicans pander shamelessly to the demands of their base -- the radical right and rapacious corporate interests -- while offering a "compassionate conservative" face to the country. They manage this despite the yawning gulf between the reactionary agenda of that base and the values and needs of "mainstream America." They slip protections for drug companies and corporate tax avoiders into the homeland-security bill. They gut family planning and environmental and worker protections yet still offer a broad message about tax cuts and education for swing voters.

For Democrats, the task should be much easier. The base of the party yearns for what the vast majority of Americans want: jobs, health care, retirement security, clean air and water, fair taxes, a voice at work, equal opportunity, freedom to make choices and a country safe from attack. Energizing the base is crucial to generating the passion that wins elections. By pitting base politics against a broad message, the DLC's advice would continue to contribute to further Democratic defeats.

Having misdiagnosed Democratic maladies, From and Reed get the remedies wrong, too. They want Democrats to "put security first," make their party the one of fiscal probity and "appeal to mainstream values" by retreating on choice, gun control and states' rights. In fact, for Democrats, it is still the economy, stupid. Despite a staggering 39-percentage-point edge for Republicans as the party "best able to keep America strong," the first issue on voters' minds was the lousy economy. But two-thirds of those polled said neither party offered clear positions on how to deal with it.

Contrary to From and Reed, national security is no mere question of political positioning. The threat of terrorism is real. Virtually all Democrats supported the attack on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But the president has responded almost solely in military terms. He has no coherent policy for the Middle East crisis. His big energy policy does nothing to reduce U.S. dependence on Persian Gulf oil. His administration has weakened virtually every multilateral effort -- treaties on nuclear proliferation and testing, against chemical and biological weapons and land mines -- to make the world safer. It has scorned global efforts -- on global warming, on racism, on sustainable development -- to make the world better. At home, as From and Reed point out, the administration offers the states no help on their rising security costs. And the rush to war in Iraq and the disdainful bullying of the United Nations threatens to undermine the aggressive global coalition against terrorism.

The point is not to posture tougher. Democrats should challenge this failure of leadership for the good of the country. On the economy, Democrats need to be the party of jobs and growth, offering an economic plan that puts people first in contrast to ineffective trickle-down tax giveaways. From and Reed agree with progressives that Democrats would profit by being bolder in addressing the concerns -- soaring health-care costs, overcrowded schools, juggling work and families, securing a decent retirement -- shared by the vast majority of Americans. But their priority is that Democrats become the green-eyeshade, budget-balance party. They echo Republican gibes at Democrats, whom they call big spenders.

This is bad politics and bad policy. If we got rid of the president's tax cuts that generate deficits to lard benefits on the wealthy, we could afford investments in people. Democrats should remember that economic growth, not retrenchment, is what balances the budget.

Today, with interest rates at record lows, the economy faltering, states and localities in fiscal crisis, and deflation stalking the globe, temporary deficits should be higher. Even after Clinton cleaned up the Republican deficits, voters don't give Democrats much credit. If Democrats focus on deficits rather than growth, they will sabotage their own reform agenda while still being blasted as big spenders.

From and Reed want Democrats to appeal to mainstream values by rhetorical repositioning on choice, guns and civil rights. But mere positioning collapses in the face of the right's fierce offensive. Democrats may want abortion to be "rare as well as legal," but will they filibuster against judges who rule that abortion is murder? Will they resist an administration that is gutting family planning in the midst of the deadliest sexually transmitted plague in history? Democrats may respect the right of sportsmen to own guns, but will they fight to maintain a ban on assault weapons? They may happily admit, with the DLC, that "most wisdom doesn't come from Washington," but will they resist Federalist Society ideologues who want to make unconstitutional the federal protection of consumers, the environment and civil rights.

The DLC wants Democrats to show "tolerance and respect" for mainstream values. But civil rights, freedom of choice, environmental and consumer protection, and worker empowerment are mainstream values. What Democrats really need is the spine to fight against the conservative assault on these core values.

The DLC, launched as the voice of conservative, largely southern Democrats, claims its strategy will help Democrats win in conservative states. But Democrats would fare far better by following the advice of Kevin Phillips, the architect of a Republican southern strategy that actually worked -- that of Richard Nixon. Phillips argues that the question isn't whether the Democratic Party should move left or right -- the straw man the DLC poses -- but whether the party is prepared to do battle for the vast majority against the powerful few. To do this, he argues, progressives must stop biting their tongues to protect endangered Democrats in conservative or swing districts. Instead, they should organize themselves independently to challenge the president's politics of privilege, put forth a bold agenda for change and take the gloves off against the right. Democrats might even stop shooting at each other and start aiming at the remarkably reactionary threat that Bush now poses. That surely would be a good start.